I suffered a small scale anxiety attack when I was filling out my application for last year's clinic.
I mean, the questions, am-I-right? In all fairness to the authors of that application, there are really no better ways to ask them, and they really were written in a way that should have comforted me.
But I gulped as I ranked myself as having the least amount of skill in nearly every category. No, I still can't roll a kayak. No, I'm not particularly comfortable in my boat, even in a pool. My tolerance to cold? Why? Am I going to be really cold a lot?
But I continued the harsh evaluation of myself and diligently named who I was sure would be the last emergency contact I would ever need. And I continued to go to roll sessions, hoping for the best.
I did finally get a roll at my fourth class. It was spotty, like most newly acquired rolls. It came and went. I was sure I had it, and
But I had become mildly obsessed with the whole idea of it. I thought about it while doing other things, practiced my hip snap while driving, and relentlessly went over the steps in my head. If you're laughing at me right now, I will know, and I will do the same to you as I see you swimming past me at clinic.
When May arrived, my apprehension over clinic grew. I was convinced that I would be the least experienced person there. Everyone seemed to have more whitewater experience than me. I had never even been on moving water.
And so, when a good friend offered me the opportunity to face my fear, I.....said yes. I had to, of course (see my first post).
On a Monday evening in early May, we pulled up to Sauffley's, a roadside parking area on the bank of the Elkhorn. There was a small group of BWA members taking off from the upper section when we arrived. Sidenote: The best thing about joining a group like the BWA is that you will always have people to paddle with.
We put on to boat the lower section of the upper Elkhorn. It's a great introduction to moving water, with a few features where you can work on boat control, ferrying, eddying out, etc. I struggled awkwardly with my gear, ratcheted myself as tightly as I could into by borrowed boat, and set off with a lot more confidence than I'd expected to have.
That confidence, as it turned out, was a little undeserved. The best description of what it can feel like to be on moving water in a whitewater kayak for the first time came from an a story titled "Becuss uf You, Heinrich", written by editor of American Whitewater, Chris Koll, about his first experience:
"It was an [older model kayak] I recall, on a Class I section of the Pennsylvania's Clarion River. The damn thing wouldn't go in a straight line and flipped repeatedly for no reason whatsoever. I swam a total of 17 times."
But I do remember a panic-inducing inability to exercise any control over my boat whatsoever. It seemed hellbent on doing the exact opposite of what I commanded it to do. I nearly flipped about 100 times. I crashed into rocks and banks. I clung to a tree on the side of the river for about five minutes, ignoring my friend's instructions, being shouted at me through his barely restrained mirth.
I had an illogical fear of ending up in the water. While coming out of your boat can always carry some risks, they were pretty minimal in that situation. And anyway, my fear was really more based on failure and the unknown.
As I sat in an eddy, recovering from my completely imagined near death experience, the river gods sent me a little gift. Bobbing near a rocky beach on the other side of the river was, to my great amusement, an escaped blow up doll of the most perverse, geriatric variety. You really never know what you might come across on the mighty Elkhorn.
One of the best pieces of advice that has ever been given to me as a new kayaker came from my friend after we had collected the doll and stuffed it into the back of my boat.
"Relax. Breath. Calm down. Enjoy. You're supposed to move with your boat. Being tense and rigid makes everything worse."
And yeah, that is a little easier said than done. But I did eventually achieve it, for short intervals between ripples and all those murderous rocks, anyway. But he was right. And that is the best advice I can pass on to you. If you're not having fun, you're probably not doing it right. Relax.
And just in case I need a reminder of that, my inflatable, octogenarian friend "Gertrude" (who now has an imaginative and elaborate back story) is still shoved in the back of my kayak to this day, acting as part souvenir, part float bag.